Global Discoveries on DVD: Misnomers and Displacements (my 7th column)

From Cinema Scope #20 (Autumn 2004). — J.R.

One of the most flagrant lacks in most jazz films is the spectacle of musicians listening to each another. Back in the early 60s, when I was frequenting a lot of downtown Manhattan jazz clubs, some of my biggest thrills came from visiting spots where many of the best and most attentive listeners were those on the bandstand —- not only the classic John Coltrane Quartet at the now defunct Half Note, where McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and the serene leader were all meditating on one another’s solos in a kind of trance, but Lennie Tristano at the same club taping his own sets with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and then playing them back in the wee hours, while he sat alone at the bar. Sitting a few seats away from him one night, I felt I was getting an education in listening by observing this prodigious blind pianist’s highly physical responses, both positive and negative, to his own solos.

No less precious was the opportunity to attend the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place one weeknight when Miles Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones were all holding forth in alternation with Teddy Wilson’s trio for (I kid you not) the price of a one-dollar admission, at least for students.… Read more »

Odd Couplings [BODY OF EVIDENCE & DAMAGE]

From the Chicago Reader (January 29, 1993). Since writing this, I’ve come to like Basic Instinct much more than I did. — J.R.

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BODY OF EVIDENCE

* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Uli Edel

Written by Brad Mirman

With Madonna, Willem Dafoe, Joe Mantegna, Anne Archer, Julianne Moore, Stan Shaw, Charles Hallahan, Lillian Lehman, Mark Rolston, Jeff Perry, and Jurgen Prochnow.

DAMAGE

* (Has redeeming facet

Directed by Louis Malle

Written by David Hare

With Jeremy Irons, Juliette Binoche, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Graves, Ian Bannen, Leslie Caron, Peter Stormare, Gemma Clark, and Julian Fellowes.


The pointed absence of scenes of sexual intercourse in such recent releases seemingly calling for them as The Crying Game, The Hours and Times, and Scent of a Woman is curious when weighed against a tendency in some other movies, including two that opened recently, to highlight transgressive or dangerous sex. In Body of Evidence it’s not only bondage and sadomasochism but sex leading to the male partner’s cardiac arrest, an effect the female partner may have intended. In Damage it’s not only illicit sex between an older, prominent government official and his son’s fiancee, who has incest in her past, but also the unconventionality of their couplings: they often remain partly clothed, and the positions they assume border on the pretzellike.… Read more »

Notes on THE WHITE SHEIK

My liner notes for the Criterion DVD (2003). If memory serves, this was probably the first such essay that I wrote for producer Issa Clubb. — J.R.

ORSON WELLES: Fellini is essentially a small-town boy who’s never really come to Rome. He’s still dreaming about it. And we should all be very grateful for those dreams. In a way, he’s still standing outside looking in through the gates. The force of La Dolce Vita comes from its provincial innocence. It’s so totally invented.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Maybe the “small-town” aspect is why I like I Vitelloni most of all his films.

WELLES: After The White Sheik, it’s the best of all.

Welles’ preference for The White Sheik (1952), Federico Fellini’s first solo feature, over all the others is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Critically speaking, it’s one of the Italian maestro’s most neglected works. In his The Italian Cinema, Pierre Leprohon wrote that it “seems to have been a kind of liquidation of the past in preparation for the emergence of the Fellinian universe, a chance for the author to work off his hatred and rancors.”

Most critics haven’t been so harsh; a more common verdict is to see this as an apprentice work, a sketch of the Fellinian splendors to come.… Read more »

CRUMB Reconsidered

Written in 2010 for Criterion’s DVD and Blu-Ray. This is the second of my essays about Terry Zwigoff’s documentary; for the first one, written 15 years earlier, go here. — J.R.

CRUMB-DVD

Now that Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is about fifteen years old, it seems pretty safe to say that it has evolved from being a potential classic to actually becoming one. But what kind? A documentary portrait of a comic-book artist, musician, and nerdy outsider? A personal film essay? A cultural study? An account of family dysfunction and sexual obsession? Or maybe just a meditation on what it means to be an American male artist — specifically, one so traumatized by his adolescence that he has never found a way of fully growing past it.

 

In fact, Crumb is all these things, with a generous amount of thoughtful art criticism thrown in as well. An old friend of Robert Crumb’s, Terry Zwigoff shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the multifaceted density and sometimes disturbing nature of what he has to show and say over two hours seems partly a function of the amount of time he had to mull it over. It’s worth adding that he was in therapy for part of that time, which surely had an impact on the film’s searching thoughtfulness and on Zwigoff’s own investment in the material.… Read more »

The Significance of Sniggering (CRUMB)

From the Chicago Reader (June 2, 1995). This piece is quite separate from the essay I contributed to Criterion’s DVD of this film 15 years later, which will be reposted shortly. — J.R,

Crumb

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb in many ways looks like conventional filmmaking, yet it conveys a remarkable fluidity and density of thought. It may resemble a biographical documentary — unobtrusively shot by Maryse Alberti, gracefully edited by Victor Livingston — but it unfurls like a passionate personal essay. The subject is Robert Crumb, America’s greatest underground comic book artist — little known to most people born much before or after 1943, the year of his birth, because he’s shunned the mainstream as a money-grubbing swamp. Zwigoff, an old friend, shot the movie over six years and edited it over three, and the sheer mass of this two-hour film seems partly a function of the amount of time he’s had to mull it over.

A member of Crumb’s former band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders, and a fellow collector of rare 20s and 30s blues and jazz records, Zwigoff has previously made documentaries only on musical subjects — blues artist Howard Armstrong in Louie Bluie, a history of Hawaiian music in A Family Named Moe.… Read more »

On a Particular Literary Blind Spot

Bellow book jacketI’m very glad that I recently purchased Saul Bellow’s collected nonfiction — a handsome, interesting, and useful book, even if I tend to regard Bellow as the most overrated of all the “major” contemporary American novelists (certainly talented and smart, but not terribly interesting when it comes to formal inventiveness). And among the many valuable discoveries to be made here is the fact that Bellow served as a film critic for the magazine Horizon in 1962-1963, a stint which yielded four separate columns –  on Morris Engels’ Lovers and Lollipops, on Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, and two think pieces, “The Mass-Produced Insight” (which quotes from his pal Manny Farber) and “Adrift on a Sea of Gore” (mostly about Richard Fleischer’s Barrabas).

I was especially interested in Bellow’s appreciative remarks about Buñuel. But here is where the attentions of his otherwise careful editor,  Benjamin Taylor, come up woefully short. Listing some of the more notable items in Buñuel’s filmography, Bellow comes up with two very puzzling titles, The Roots (1957) [sic] and Stranger in the Room (1961) [sic]. The second of these, which he discusses in some detail, sounds like he might be thinking of La Fièvre Monte à El Pao (1959), while the first is most likely La Mort en Ce Jardin (1956).… Read more »

The Example of KATZELMACHER

This is the last in a series of four essays I wrote in 2008 about Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The others, on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha, have already been posted on this site. — J.R.

Katzelmacher is only the second feature of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, yet the gulf that separates it from its predecessor, Love is Colder Than Death, is enormous. His first feature, shot over 24 days in April 1969, was later described by its writer-director as the first of his “cinema” films, apparently because its minimal story about petty gangsters seems conceived in relation to genre films. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in June, where it was roundly booed and received mixed reviews; it seems fairly safe to conclude that if Fassbinder had made nothing else, most of us would never have heard of him.

This is no doubt why Fassbinder’s somewhat mysterious epigraph for Katzelmacher, credited to his friend and collaborator Yaak Karsunke, reads like a directive to himself: ”It’s better to make new mistakes than to perpetuate the old ones to the point of unconsciousness.” Another directive, more ironic, crops up in one of the film’s final lines of dialogue — “We need a bit of order here” —- which has formal as well as political implications.… Read more »

Exchange with Charles Wolfe on Claude Chabrol (1975)

From Film Comment (January-February 1975). This was a good eight years before I became a colleague of Chuck Wolfe at the Film Studies program University of California, Santa Barbara, where I found myself trapped in a dead-end jobfor four years before my 20-year stint at the Chicago Reader. — J.R.

 

To the editor:

Contrary to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s introduction to his interview with Jacques Rivette (Film Comment, Sept.-Oct.1974), the first major Cahiers critic to embark on a feature film was Claude Chabrol, not Rivette. Chabrol shot LE BEAU SERGE between December 1957 and February 1958, finished editing in May, and presented the film at the Locarno festival that year. Rivette began work on PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT in the summer of 1958 while Chabrol filmed his second feature, LES COUSINS. This information is confirmed in Claire Clouzot’s Le Cinéma Français depuis la nouvelle vague and Guy Braucourt’s Cinéma d’aujourd hui volume on Chabrol.

All this may seem trivial, but it reflects a general misunderstanding of Chabrol’s crucial role n the transition of the Cahiers critics from writers to filmmakers.… Read more »

MARTHA: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament

Like my essay on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, this article was previously published by Madman in Australia to accompany their DVD release of this later Fassbinder film. Prior to that, it was commissioned by the Fantoma DVD label in the U.S. for their own release of Martha. —J.R.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: You really are a wretched person.

RAINER WERNER FASSBINDER: That’s what I’ve been saying all along.

MARGIT CARSTENSEN: How am I supposed to pull myself together after this?

The following exchange, appearing at the end of a dialogue that took place between the writer-director and his lead actress after the completion of their film Martha in 1973 (1), helps to pinpoint what continues to make that film politically lethal. Fassbinder’s sarcasm, which becomes oddly comforting in most of its on-screen as well as offscreen manifestations, offers a particular kind of challenge to the viewer in Martha that becomes inextricably tied to how one regards its title heroine. Accepting the self-rationalizations and denials of a woman trapped in a monstrous marriage to a sadist is made to seem intolerable, a cause for squirming, and the fact that Fassbinder plays this game as poker-faced high comedy only makes the challenge more formidable.… Read more »

Remaking History [on SHULIE]

An article about remakes of independent films, from the November 20, 1998 Chicago Reader. – J.R.

Shulie

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Elisabeth Subrin

With Kim Soss, Larry Steger, Rick Marshall, Eigo Komei, E.W. Ross, Marion Mryczka, Ed Rankus, Kerry Ufelmann, and Jennifer Reeder.

What is it about American culture that compels the film industry to do remakes? The compulsion has been growing over the past two decades — one of my oldest friends, a cinephile and sometime screenwriter based in Hollywood, was already viewing it with philosophical resignation ten years ago. As she put it, “My best friends and I have been spending most of the 80s sitting in cars discussing remakes.”

Since the early 80s we’ve been inundated with more cultural objects than ever before, but we have less and less sense of what to do with them. It’s easy to explain the Hollywood remake syndrome as unimaginative cost accounting: it made money before, so why not do it again? Then there’s the expanding youth market, which encourages unimaginative cost accountants to figure that former hits can be recycled for younger generations — one of the justifications offered by Gus Van Sant for his forthcoming remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.… Read more »

Mise en Scène as Power Struggle: THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT

This essay was commissioned by the Australian DVD label Madman, for their 2008 release of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. In fact, I wrote essays about four separate Fassbinder films for them — the three others were Katzelmacher, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Martha. —J.R.

“I love movies. Pictures about passion—and pain. Lovely!

[…] “Discipline’s okay as long as you’re having fun.”
–Karin (Hanna Schygulla) in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

An early watershed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career as a filmmaker, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), his twelfth feature, might even be regarded as the first in which he explicitly “discovered” mise en scène.  Adapting his own play —- which had premiered in Darmstadt half a year before, in June 1971, in a production directed by Peer Raben —- the film makes no effort to “open up” the original material in terms of its original setting, the flat of its title heroine, and it focuses on issues of camera placement and camera movement like few other Fassbinder films made before or since.

For Christian Braad Thomsen, who may be Fassbinder’s most authoritative critic, the film marks a significant turning point.… Read more »

Moving (July-August 1978)

From the July-August 1978 Film Comment, only slightly tweaked in March 2014. In retrospect, it must have been an act of sheer defiance and perversity for me to have structured the order of the films discussed here in alphabetical order, perhaps as a way of further brandishing all my globetrotting at the time. Thirty-six years later, I regret some of the swagger here, including the facile wisecrack-putdown of Jean-Pierre Gorin. I was still under the excessive influence of Manny Farber at the time -– a great writer whose style one imitates, consciously or unconsciously, at one’s peril –- combined with some of the early stirrings that led to my 1980 memoir Moving Places. – J.R.

 BackandForth

Back And Forth (London, 1/10/78), in Pam Cook and Simon Field’s avant-garde film course. Each time I encounter Michael Snow’s crisscrossed classroom, I learn a little bit more about how to watch it. Following those relentless, oscillating pans with the eyes — equating one’s head and ego with the camera or vice versa in some sort of anthropomorphic/illusionist perversion conditioned by Hollywood — turns out to be about as useful as climbing into a Mix Master and throwing the switch. Sitting still, in your head as well as in your seat, affords a smoother, subtler, and more contemplative experience.… Read more »

Douglas Sirk

DOUGLAS SIRK COLLECTION (ALL I DESIRE, THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW & INTERLUDE), German DVD box set.

 

My favorite Sirk film, SCHLUSSAKKORD (FINAL ACCORD, 1936), has yet to come out on DVD anywhere, but this attractively put together German box set of three digitally restored 50s Hollywood features, purchased via German Amazon, does include the similarly titled DER LETZTE AKKORD (INTERLUDE, 1956), which turns out to be the only stinker in the bunch, despite the fact that it’s in color and CinemaScope. (Even a diehard fan like Fassbinder admitted this kitschy item is “a hard film to get into”.) The other two–both excellent, complexly nuanced, doom-ridden and hard-as-nails melodramas in black and white -– are the pictures Sirk made with Barbara Stanwyck, in 1953 and 1955 respectively, each of which charts her character’s belated and troubled small-town homecoming. In the first, set around the turn of the century, she’s a not-very-successful stage actress returning to visit her family in Wisconsin; in the second she’s a divorced and successful clothes designer looking up her one-time boyfriend (Fred MacMurray), who now has a family of his own (including a somewhat miscast Joan Bennett). Both are about as bleak as movies can get -– notwithstanding ALL I DESIRE’s studio-imposed happy ending, which is impossible to believe in anyway.Read more »

Rediscovering ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL

This is one of a series of essays that I wrote in 2007 about four Fassbinder films for Madman, the Australian DVD label. The other three — on Martha, Katzelmacher, and The Bitter Tea of Petra von Kant – can be found elsewhere on this site. —J.R.

I’m still trying to figure out what I think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982). An awesomely prolific filmmaker (he turned out seven features in 1970 alone), he became the height of Euro-American fashion during the mid-70s, then went into nearly total eclipse after his death from a drug overdose –- reminding    us that the fates of the fashionable can often be precarious.

Openly bisexual, tyrannical on his sets, and habitually dressed in a leather jacket, Fassbinder cut a starlike figure in the firmament of New German Cinema, though he was hardly alone. If the French New Wave of the 60s was mainly about films, the New German Cinema of the 70s was mainly about filmmakers, and each of the best-known directors had a claim to fame that was mainly a matter of public image: eccentric exhibitionism crossed with German romanticism (Werner Herzog), existentialist hip crossed with black attire and rock ‘n’ roll (Wim Wenders), Wagnerian pronouncements (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg), a dandy’s stupefied worship of shrines and divas (Werner Schroeter), and so on.… Read more »

Moving (May-June 1977)

Written as a column for the May-June 1977 Film Comment. Some of the details here are dated, I think, in an interesting manner — especially the discussion of “Disco-Vision”. I should add that the only version of MIKEY AND NICKY that had been released in the mid-70s was an unfinished edit by Elaine May that the studio had taken away from her and put out without her consent. -– J.R.

***

The world had gone crazy, said the crazy man in his cell. What was nutty was that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in the real world but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in the illusions. Two sets of maniacs.

– Walker Percy, Lancelot

 

Compare the ads for NETWORK and CARWASH. The former conjures up a hot exposé, a “real” behind-the-scenes glimpse of What Goes On behind the moneyed façade of big-time broadcasting; the latter suggests a frivolous, “irresponsible” fantasy to be seen for fun, not edification. Moving back to the U.S. after over seven years abroad — a sudden shift from reflective Paris chrome and ashen London gray to La Jolla baby-blue, from cinema to some medieval state of pre-cinema or post-Cinema — the foreignness and familiarity of the country both seem epitomized by the absurdity of that cockeyed distinction, which virtually gets it all backwards.… Read more »